"Ni hao" for foreigners

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A video titled "The Chinese tourists accused of bad behaviour in Thailand | Channel 4 News" was posted to YouTube on 2/22/15, but it has been recirculated in this article by Didi Kirsten Tatlow about Chinese travel abroad during the recent National Day holiday:  "With Its Tourists Behaving Badly, China Embarks on Some Soul-Searching" (NYT, 10/10/16).

I do not wish to analyze the behavior of Chinese tourists at home and overseas.  What struck me powerfully about this video is the peculiar pronunciation of what is arguably the most widely known Mandarin expression in the world, viz., Nǐ hǎo 你好 ("hello; hi!").  You can hear it at 0:23 and 0:37 of this 4:04 video.

Instead of two low, dipping third tones, with the first one becoming a rising second tone through sandhi, as native speakers say it to each other, what I hear over and over again when Chinese speak to foreigners is a first syllable of indeterminate tone and a mid-level rising to high tone second syllable.  It sounds horrible to my ear, and I have no idea where it comes from.  Do foreigners trying to speak a little bit of Mandarin actually pronounce "Ni hao" that way?  Do the Chinese who say "Ni hao" in that strange way think that they're mimicking the way foreigners pronounce that Mandarin greeting?

There is also a variant foreigner's "Ni hao" that I often hear.  For this one, we have the same first syllable of indeterminate tone, but then we get a dramatic falling tone second syllable, like this:  "Ni hào!".  This one grates on me even more than the "Ni háo!" described in the previous paragraph.

These special pronunciations of "Ni hao" for foreigners seem so deeply ingrained that they sometimes come out that way even when Chinese are speaking to individuals whom they know to be completely fluent in Mandarin.  I can't offhand think of other Mandarin expressions that are reflexively spoken this way with a special intonation for foreigners.

While the foreigner's "Ni hao" is undoubtedly sometimes uttered mockingly, in most cases it does not carry any particular derogatory implication.  Indeed, in the video shown above, the fellow who says it seems in a good mood and well-intentioned.

Does a similar transformation of common expressions spoken to foreigners occur in other languages?

Kon'nichi wa / こんにちは Zdravstvuyte / Здравствуйте.  Guten Tag!

Whether or not something comparable happens in other languages, this foreigner's "Ni hao" invariably strikes me as a curious phenomenon.

[h.t. Geoff Wade]


  1. champacs said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 7:14 am

    I've never noticed "bonjour" being said differently to foreigners (although as a fluent but non-native speaker of French I may not have picked up on it), however I am always surprised by how easy it is to detect that someone doesn't speak French just from hearing them say that single word.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 7:19 am

    Yes, I've heard Chinese use this strange intonation when saying Nǐ hǎo and I do think it's a kind of send-up of foreigners' attempts at tones.

    It's similar to the Chinese joke that goes something like: My Chinese name is Hé Xiǎngjiàn. My English name is Hè Xiàngjiàn.

    Funny thing is, when Chinese say Ní háo to me, I find myself using the same pronunciation back at them.

  3. Tiger Dai said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 7:40 am

    Well, I am a Chinese. Though I am a little bit confusing about "mid-level rising to high tone second syllable', I will say native speakers say 'Ni35 Hao214"(35&214 is a way to show the tones).Sorry for my English…

  4. Dai Huteng said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 8:04 am

    Maybe the dialect? Some dialects in China have this situation, e.g.
    电冰箱 'electric refridgerator' dian51 bing55 xiang55, in the area of Northeast is dian51 bing44 xiang44–sounds like indeterminate tone. As for the mimicking, well, I don't think so, I always mimicking like that "Niiiiiii Hao" or "Ni Haoooooooo".

  5. leoboiko said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 8:13 am

    I think many well-intentioned native speakers unconsciously adopt a kind of mild Motherese when talking to foreigners; I've noticed something of the sort with Japanese speakers. But I don't think the Chinese would change their tones when speaking to babies?…

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 8:13 am


    "Funny thing is, when Chinese say Ní háo to me, I find myself using the same pronunciation back at them."

    Ditto for me, and I do it in a very emphatic way, both for their "Ni háo" and for their "Ni hào".

  7. Mark Meckes said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 8:23 am

    I've often caught myself unintentionally mimicking some aspects of other people's accents and word usage in English, both speakers of other languages and speakers of different varieties of English from mine. I always worry that, if noticed, it might be misinterpreted as mocking.

  8. Zeppelin said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 8:59 am

    Racist imitations of Chinese people often seem to include saying "Ni hao" in a high-pitched, nasal mock-Chinese voice. Maybe the tone change originates in an attempt to make the phrase sound less stereotypically Chinese to foreigners?

    I'll sometimes intentionally adjust the pronuncation of German words when I use them in an English context, even if the word hasn't been loaned into English and doesn't have an established loan pronunciation.

  9. Tim Martin said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 9:20 am

    I agree with leoboiko in that well-intentioned native speakers sometimes change their speech for non-natives. The changes aren't limited to word selection, but also include prosody and choice of grammatical structures.

    On the JET Programme, I noticed my fellow English speakers doing this *a lot* when talking to Japanese people. Native English speakers had a tendency to dumb down their English in a way that conformed more to the way Japanese people tended to speak English.

    For example, let's say you and your friends are about to head downtown to do some karaoke. One of your Japanese friends asks "Is Akiko coming?" A natural English response would be "She might be coming later." Instead, English speakers who are used to speaking to Japanese people with poor English will say "Maybe, she will come later."

    This happens *all the time.* Japanese people struggle with modal verbs because Japanese doesn't have them. But Japanese people understand "maybe." And the use of "will" to indicate future actions is clearer to many Japanese people than our "-ing" constructions (although I don't know if this is a necessary result of having a Japanese-speaking brain, or whether it's because "will" is taught more in Japanese schools).

    I left the JET Programme 8 years ago, but if I wracked my brain I could come up with many more examples using different grammatical constructions, where native English speakers change their speech to something *very unnatural* to help non-native speakers understand.

    To speak briefly on the reverse phenomenon (Japanese speakers simplifying their speech for non-natives)… I think this happens too, though I'm not as qualified to comment on it. The most notable thing for the present conversation is the way that Japanese people sometimes change their Japanese to mimic the prosody of English* when speaking to native English speakers. Basically, they add stress accent to their speech, even though Japanese doesn't use stress accent. This is usually done in jest or in a lighthearted sort of way, and doesn't carry on for an entire conversation. I don't believe I've seen Japanese people unconsciously do this in an honest effort to communicate better (which is what English speakers were doing in my previous paragraphs).

    But I can see the connection to Chinese speakers pronouncing "nihao" strangely. In the video they seem to be at a lively event. If they are in "speaking to foreigners" mode, I'm not surprised that they might change their pronunciation.

    *The voiceover at the beginning of this clip is a good example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRRNYzosM4Y
    The character is meant to be a German person who speaks Japanese with an accent. But the way the actor speaks is exactly what actual Japanese people do when they mimic English prosody. This example is actually rather toned-down, because this is a solemn moment in the J-drama.

  10. Wentao said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 10:01 am

    While natives do speak differently to non-natives, the tourists in the video seem to speak spontaneously and naturally. I would attribute the unusual tone to topolectal variation. My guess would be some kind of Southwestern Mandarin – Hubei, Sichuan or Guizhou, perhaps.

    This wikipedia page also shows some dialects in which the 3rd tone is mid-high rise (Hanzhong, Shaanxi), or high flat (Xiangyang, Hubei and Guilin, Guangxi).

  11. Gene Anderson said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 10:38 am

    I too have heard these–I have a vague impression that the first form is ni hao ma with the tones of the English phrase "How are you?"

  12. John Rohsenow said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

    Perhaps " the "Ni háo!" with rising intonation is just another example of the ubiquitous "up talk" rising
    intonation? ;-)

  13. Wilhelm said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    To me, it sounds like "nihao" with the same prosody as English "hello".

  14. Victor Mair said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 3:27 pm

    The phenomenon I'm describing in this post is reminiscent of, but different from, that described in "When intonation overrides tone" (6/4/13) and in a number of other LL posts on intonation vs. tone in Sinitic languages.

  15. AntC said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 4:08 pm

    The speaker at 0:23 in the video is speaking English, so I'd be pretty sure his "Ni hao" is adapted. (I guess he speaks English because the camera crew look neither Chinese nor Thai.) The speaker at 0:37 says only "Ni hao", but I'd guess it's to the same camera crew.

    Both speakers have a drawn-out second syllable. I agree with Wilhelm it seems the same pattern as a "halloo".

  16. JK said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 5:57 pm

    To ML's initial question:
    "Guten Tag", I think so.

    In my local variety of Standard German, I would say the second syllable of "Guten Tag" is usually pronounced [tⁿn]⁓[ʔⁿn]⁓[n̩] among native speakers.

    But when native speakers, whether here or elsewhere, intend to illustrate the greeting's pronunciation, I bet many if not most of them will pronounce the second syllable as [tʰən] or even [tʰɛn]. While both of these pronunciations do occur in communication among native speakers, [tʰɛn] is probably restricted to situations where you want to pronounce each syllable extra clearly, and while it's possible that [tʰən] may be the vanilla pronunciation in areas other than where I live, it sounds like an attempt to speak crisper than regular speech to me.

    I think the reason, in most cases, is that native speakers are unaware that what they perceive as the "lazy" pronunciation is, at least where I live, so much more common than the "correct" one that the latter is actually not encountered much in real life and, hence, of dubious (doubtful? questionable?) import to learners. A different motivation may be that native speakers consider their own "lazy" pronunciation to be more difficult than the voweled version for learners in terms of both comprehension and reproduction; justly, if I may say so, as it takes many learners quite a bit of practice to perform a strictly nasal release of a plosive. If you want to try it yourself, I recommend starting with [pⁿm] or [bⁿm] because you can easily check whether you keep your lips shut (correct) or not (wrong). By the way, I wonder which Englishes and other Germanic dialects also have nasally released plosives. I don't think I've encountered them in any non-Germanic language.

  17. Zeppelin said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 6:46 pm

    I can confirm what JK said. I talk to a lot of non-native speakers of German (especially Japanese relations and visitors these days) and I'll generally, uh, reduce the reduction of unstressed syllables, inserting schwas and avoiding nasal plosion and such because I know those are hard to parse. I'll also use more analytical expressions and avoid Abtönungspartikel and other peculiarities.

  18. James Dew said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 7:22 pm

    Two thoughts go through my mind, though I don't know that either one will be helpful:
    1) Could the rising tone on the second syllable come from the intonation on a friendly "How ARE you?" in English?
    2) Isn't "Ni hao" with a falling tone on the hao standard Sichuanese, where a shangsheng syllable normally carries a rather abruptly falling tone, much like a "4th" tone in standard Mandarin? Of course there may not be any reason to think that these Ni hao\ speakers are from Chengdu.

  19. JK said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 7:41 pm

    I wrote "I don't think I've encountered [sequences of stop, nasal release, nasal consonant] in any non-Germanic language", but I think that is only true for word-final occurrence. I guess countless languages have them intervocally, and a quick look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nasal_release reminded me of Slavic word-initial dn-.

    Zeppelin: I think I sometimes conciously reduce the reduction of the reduction of syllables to achieve a more natural pronunciation than what my urge to make myself understood would have.

  20. Geoff said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 7:46 pm

    JK – in trying to improve my German accent, I have to work hard at being 'lazy' (not releasing the plosive in 'guten tag' etc).

    Champacs – from my limited experience as a tourist in France, I feel there are two quite distinct pronunciations of 'bonjour'. I haven't worked out whether there are situations that favour one or the other.
    b'JOU – with a high rising stress on the second syllable
    BONjour – rising/falling, stress on the first syllable.

    Is this right?

  21. Tzk said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 11:39 pm

    I encountered this countless times during the approximately 17 billion years I lived in China. I am pretty sure it's similar (though less awful due to a very different lower dynamic) to when drunken white people in the US speak to Asians (or more often Asian-Americans) in their idea of a stereotypical Chinese accent ("Herro! Wercome to Amelica!" *clasp hands and bow*).

    I've often had it extend past the initial "ni hao" into the following few sentences of the exchange. Once or twice I have had it done to me in a manner that was overtly hostile, but mostly I think people don't mean much by it – even if the listener speaks some Chinese, I think people tend to assume (usually rightly) that they won't realize their accents are being ridiculed. The one time I called someone out on it he got super embarrassed.

    It took me a while to realize that this weird accent was meant to be an imitation of the way foreigners talk, because I have never heard an actual Westerner speak in this way (though weirdly I have heard a few non-native Mandarin speakers with accents that (to me) sound a bit like this in Xinjiang). But I've asked a bunch of Chinese people about it and they've always said that, yes, that person was making fun of you, and yes, that really is what most foreigners sound like to Chinese ears. Again, I think it's not all that diffeeent to how some random dude from like Kansas would probably not be very good at imitating a Chinese accent. He would probably have a vague sense that he should mix up his L's and R's and mess up very inflections, while some random person from China who hasn't heard that all that many authentic Western accents in Chinese might just now to garble his tones.

    I think that that distorted "ni hao" in particular is one of the more widespread garblings, such that it has become sort of a standardized garble. There are some others like that as well, most notably "wai guo ren" with three comically exaggerated second tones.

  22. LynnJoo said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 12:30 am

    Hi,I'm a Chinese here.

    Chinese people say "Ni Hao" like that video for 2 reasons.
    1,They have a regional accent.
    2,They try to do your English tone and they think you can understand the Chinese word if they use English tone to say it.

    You know,when many western people learn to speak Chinenes,they say “Ni Hao” with English tone,it sounds like what these Chinese say in the video so much,so Chinese like to inmitate that when they are suppose to talk with western foreigners.

    And the funny thing is,we Chinese don't say “Ni Hao”(I mean the standard Chinese tone) to each other frequently. We'd like to say “嗨!”(Hi!)or “哟!”(Yo!),sometimes we say “吃了么您?”(chi-le-me-nin? | Have you eaten yet?)“怎么样啊最近?”(zen-me-young-ah-zui-jin? | What's up?)……and young Chinese people like to say “Hello啊”(English word ‘hello’+Chinese character ‘啊(ah)’ as a auxiliary words of mood).

    I am not good that English ,am I clear?

  23. LynnJoo said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 12:48 am

    And I need to say,maybe lots of Chinese think that tone is funny,but not all of this is the result of discrimination and derision.

    It just a strong impression to Chinese that how English people speak Chinese.

    If you browse the Weibo(it‘s a web as Twitter),you will find that we Chinese really like to make fun of the tone,no matter where are you from.

  24. Bathrobe said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 6:36 am

    Having read the various replies, I think the one that is on the money is Tzk's. I don't this funny pronunciation of Ni Hao has anything to do with regional accents. I lived in Beijing, not Sichuan, and I heard it plenty in Beijing.

    The kind of person using this pronunciation tends not to be a cultured or highly educated person; most often they are very ordinary people who haven't had much contact with foreigners. They're operating on an (often justified) stereotype as to how foreigners speak Chinese. There's also a slightly smart-alecky aspect to it, something like "Hey look, I'm talking to a foreigner", but it usually isn't hostile or derisory.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 6:55 am

    Once again I agree with Bathrobe (and Tzk) that this "Ni hao" for foreigners, both as "Ni háo" and as "Ni hào", cannot by and large be attributed to topolectal influences. People who speak MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin [biāozhǔn pǔtōnghuà 标准普通话 / biāozhǔn guóyǔ 標準國語]) and say "Nǐ hǎo" to each other do this all the time to foreigners.

  26. flow said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 2:44 pm

    Will pls someone correct me, but the Ni hao that I know has the 2nd syllable starting with a fricative sound not altogether unlike Scots loch or German ach. This is the pronunciation you will hear e.g. in this educational video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74YqoyyQTVc

    However, those guys in the news report say 'how' quite clearly with an English, non-fricative h; in the first instance—"Ni hao, how are you"—the Chinese 'hao' and the English 'how' do sound same-same to my ears. In other words, it's not only the tones that are not native at all.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 10:37 pm


    In that educational video you linked to, I do not hear the fricative at the beginning of "hǎo" to which you refer when spoken by the woman. Of all the thousands of Chinese with whom I have interacted, only about five begin the syllable "hǎo" with a clear fricative sound, and it really stands out. Two of them are from Shanghai, but not all Shanghai people begin "hǎo" with a fricative. One of them makes it sound almost guttural, so rough and raspy does he pronounce the initial "h".

  28. Rachel said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 12:06 am

    A Taiwanese friend of mine and I have sometimes joked with each other using that ridiculously mispronounced Mandarin. Everything becomes a goofy fourth tone. "Ni4 chi4 fan4 le4 ma4!" "Mei4 you4! Ni4 ne4! Hai4 you4, wo4men4 wei4shen4me4 zhe4yang4 shuo4! Zhe4 bu4shi4 Zhong4wen4!"

    It annoys me when people speak to me in that way, because it usually seems somewhere between pointlessly silly and patronizing. But I've occasionally heard, when a Westerner speaks Mandarin, that they really do exhibit a kind of clipping and that tends to turn everything into fourth tone. I think it's also partially over-pronouncing the fourth tone, which is perhaps the hardest one for an English native speaker (and probably speakers of other languages) to get sounding right. Also, it seems related to the stereotypical way that English speakers communicate with 'foreigners': "By. pro. noun. cing. ev. er. y. syll. a. ble. LOUD. ly. and. clipped." Do that with Mandarin, and the tone sandhi is lost, and I can see how everything would start sounding like fourth tone, too.

    It's still annoying to have that caricatured and turned into a stereotype, though. Stereotypes are nasty, whichever direction they go.

  29. JS said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

    Isolated syllables of "furner Chinese" are in the fourth tone, but the sentence contour is really 111…4. So when I asked a six(?)-year old why she was talking like this, she said pa1ni1ting1bu1dong4. :D good times…

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